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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Maldives to become premiere eco-destination



Planting trees, installing solar power panels and wind turbines are just some of the ways resorts will have to adapt in order to step in line with President Mohamed Nasheed’s new green agenda.

The president boldly declared yesterday the Maldives would achieve carbon neutrality in ten years through a system of offsetting carbon emissions and using renewable energies.

The impact on the tourism industry, which accounts for a third of the country’s income, will undoubtedly be great. The mental picture conjured up by Nasheed during his announcement was one of tourists sunning themselves in carbon neutral resorts and dining on fish caught by fishermen sailing the seas on carbon neutral boats.

With the government giving the green light to maximise efforts to transform the country into the world’s premier eco-destination, resorts will have to adopt sustainable policies alongside the provision of luxury if they are to stay in the game.

One resort, Soneva Fushi, is already way ahead. In 2007, the resort decided to go carbon neutral by 2009 and has been seeking out the most innovative technologies - including electricity-free air conditioning, which uses deep sea cold water - ever since.

The resort’s owners aim to reach 60 per cent carbon neutrality by the end of the year, become carbon zero by 2010 and carbon negative by the end of 2010.

“The Maldivian islands are our main selling point,” said Musab Anees, social and environment manager at the resort. “But they are fragile and so we have a great responsibility.”

Anees predicts the tourism industry will have little choice but to adapt if resorts are to continue drawing tourists to the Maldives as the current trend in Europe is “very eco-conscious”. “In our experience, the more sustainable we are, the more loyal our clients are.”

Taking a tough line on sustainability, Soneva Fushi even levies a two per cent carbon tax on clients’ bills to offset their flights and their stay. “We haven’t seen a dip in numbers. On the contrary,” said Anees, “our numbers have gone up.”

Tourism minister Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad said adapting to market needs would not prove overly taxing for the tourism industry, which was “very responsive”. Adding a cautionary note, he said it was important to remember the goals set by the government would not be achieved overnight.

With the global trend veering towards eco-tourism, those in the industry predict the president’s green agenda could boost much-needed tourist numbers. A welcome thought at a time of financial hardship, reflected in the 4.8 per cent drop in tourist arrivals in January compared to the same time last year.

Jemma Purvis, public relations assistant at Kuoni, a tour operator which specialises in luxury holidays to the Maldives, said the company was making a greater move towards socially-responsible travel. “Conspicuous consumerism in the current climate is not considered appropriate and people are actively looking to holiday with a socially-responsible tour operator.”

The president’s decision has been described as “novel” by Mohamed Sim Ibrahim, director general of Maldives Association Tourism Industry. “I think it’s very good news to come out at this time. It’s something very positive especially at a time when people are very worried about the environment....It’s very visionary.”

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